President’s Letter: December 2021

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

December 22, 2021

It was a gray, damp day but what a treat to be out and about in Manhattanville, exploring the very old street grid, the 1811 one and the new architecture, all cheek and jowl in a deeply overlooked but historically important part of the city.

I was finally able to partake of one of Eric Washington’s MAS tours! Eric is not just a fabulous tour guide, but a scholar and author of renowned. I have tried multiple times to make his tours but have failed miserably. But now having taken one, I seriously regret all the ones I didn’t squeeze into my calendar.

Dairy came to piers on the Hudson at the end of 125th Street, destined for nearby processing facilities run by Sheffield Farms. It is easy to forget that dairy needs to move from farm to consumer very quickly, so the access to the Hudson and the rail lines was critical to getting fresh milk to the burgeoning city. Sheffield Farms processed milk right there in Manhattanville within blocks of the river. Later the company was housed in an extant 1909 white terracotta building on 125th Street. The facility was built with viewing platforms to allow people to see milk processing. The structure reflects the ambitions of the company that erected it. To paraphrase Eric, the building is theatrical. Now owned by Columbia University and used as an art center, the building could use the TLC that they will hopefully lavish on it.

Photo: Eric K. Washington. Modifications: photo cropped.

The older and the newer city grids collide where 125th crosses 129th street. How weird is that? (Pop quiz…there is one other place in Manhattan that happens…do you know where?) Old Broadway is a tiny block long street that runs to the east of the Broadway we all know.

All the themes of New York can be found in this little piece of Manhattan. The intersections of new architecture, post-Revolutionary War churches, still functioning synagogues, and the intrusions of brutalist police stations are all present. The bumping of remnants of the struggles of the people who were newly arrived in Manhattanville, in waves over generations, to the struggles today over gentrification and development of Columbia’s northern outposts, and an exciting waterfront esplanade providing access to the Hudson River. It is all there.

I was reminded as I stood on the edge of the Hudson looking back to the formidable structure of the Riverside Drive extension overhead, that 125th is on an earthquake fault. It is the Manhattanville fault, in fact. I was reminded of the toll the earth takes from us one way or another.

For me the tour was not just a deep dive into NYC history but also a reminder of the way that policy, problems, activism and real life all collide. Whether it was the determination of women of the Pure Milk League to conquer the untimely death of infants, and the science that delivered the practices to do that, to the industrialization of that process, this history resonates today. Yes, we are conquering different problems, whether COVID, climate change or the vestiges of discriminatory land use practices, we still need that intersection of activism, policy and innovation to overcome our challenges.

In that spirit, I thank you all for all your support and encouragement over the course of this tough year. We face a new year that may be just as tough or tougher, but with a reaffirmed commitment to seeking that sweet spot of activism, reliance on a world-view grounded in facts, and the spark of innovation to move us through our problems to a better New York. Stay well. And happy new year.

PS I want to share some of my go-to resources whenever I am exploring some part of New York that intrigues me. First, of course, our own Greenacre Library is a wonderful resource of materials about New York. I urge you to explore it online! The Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition about the 1811 grid, which may be viewed online as well. Check out the interactive map that takes you from the grid as it was laid out to the streets of today. And you hopefully all know about our wonderful friends at Urban Archive, aggregators extraordinaire for historic photographs of the city. And of course, take MAS’s wonderful tours of the city.

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York